Combining an artist's eye with a chef's deft technique and sensitive palate, Massimiliano Alajmo has elevated Le Calandre's cuisine to the highest level.
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Family Values

Alan Tardi - October 2011

From a little the Alajmo family have made a lot, including the vaunted Le Calandre near Padua and the recently renovated Quadri in Venice. Alan Tardi visits the good-natured clan to see what makes them so happy and hospitable.

Happy families are all alike, wrote Leo Tolstoy. But then he never met the Alajmo family (pronounced a lie mo), much less ate in one of their restaurants. This family is both happy and exceptional. They turned a simple restaurant, Le Calandre, situated on a busy road in the nondescript Italian town of Sarmeola di Rubano, outside Padua, into a Michelin three-star establishment (one of only six in Italy). The restaurant spawned the small hotel Maccaroni above it, a casual restaurant/cafe/pastry shop in front called Il Calandrino, a food shop, In.gredienti, featuring a line of proprietary food products and culinary accessories across the street, and a more traditional restaurant called La Montecchia in the former barn of a nearby noble estate. And this, it seems, is just the beginning.

How were they able to accomplish all this in the backwaters of the Veneto? And how were they able to remain a happy family while doing it?

Let’s begin by taking a look at the youngest (as often happens in families, the baby gets all the attention). As a child, Massimiliano—usually referred to as Massi or Max—preferred to stay indoors helping his mother in the kitchen while all the other boys were outside playing soccer. When it came time to choose, Max decided to go to culinary school, followed by a series of stages in restaurants in Italy and France, most notably with Michel Guérard in Eugénie-les-Bains, France.

At the tender age of 19, Max got his first chef’s job when he took over the kitchen of the family restaurant, the very same kitchen in which he used to help his mother. Three years later, in 1996, the restaurant received two Michelin stars, and six years after that, it received the coveted third, making Massimiliano the youngest chef ever to be so honored. But let’s take a step or two back.

In 1962, papa Erminio, himself then a teenager, took a job as a waiter at the Moretti brewery’s pizzeria and discothèque in Udine. It was the hottest place in town. “I couldn’t afford to go every night, so I got a job there instead,” he recalls. He worked long hours but made good money. More importantly, he met his future wife, who, it turns out, was the daughter of the boss. “We only met outside the restaurant,” continues Erminio. “I worked there for years, but no one ever knew we were together until I left and we became engaged.”

Rita comes from a long line of restaurateurs. In 1967, Erminio, a natural innovator and entrepreneur, entered into business with Rita’s brother-in-law in a restaurant called Padovanelli at Padua’s hippodrome. A few years later, while still working at Padovanelli, he started working in another restaurant of Rita’s family outside Padua called Aurora. Over the next decade, Erminio and Rita got married, bought the building in which Aurora was housed, bought out the other family members, and in 1981 changed the name to Le Calandre, which is a type of migrant bird. Rita ran the kitchen.

“There hadn’t been a chef in the restaurant since we took it over,” she says. “My husband told me he needed me there. So we put the boys in school a year early and I went to work in the restaurant. I revolutionized everything, got rid of the bouillon cubes, and things started to improve.” The restaurant did quite well, building an appreciative clientele and even garnering a Michelin star in 1992. Not bad for a woman with no professional culinary training or aspirations.

During this time, while little Massimiliano was making animal-shaped cakes in the kitchen with his mother, the couple’s eldest son took to following his father around in the restaurant: “Raffaele [known as Raf] spent all his free time working with me in the dining room. He got paid a salary and made good tips. But he didn’t want to be known as Alajmo’s son. No one except for a few of our oldest customers and the staff knew.”

In 1994, when Raffaele finished his military service and Massimiliano finished his culinary stages, Erminio made another daring move: he turned the restaurant he and his wife had worked so hard to create over to his two young sons and went to a nearby golf club to open a restaurant called La Montecchia. “I felt it was time to let my children take over and make their mark. I was confident they could do it. And besides, I was excited by this new opportunity. La Montecchia was a big open place, kind of like Padovanelli, where we could do traditional food. Plus, I wanted to see whether I could still do it.”

He could. And, far from collapsing, Le Calandre grew and developed into something beyond anyone’s expectations. With Massimiliano in the kitchen and Raffaele in the front, something almost magical began to happen.

“When I took over the kitchen,” Massimiliano recalls, “it wasn’t so much a question of sudden change as a gradual evolution and growth. I never abandoned tradition or whatever was there when I got there. I only sought to explore and expand it.”

As Massimiliano settled in, the food changed, the menu transformed, and a whole new approach to cooking began to develop, an approach which does not easily fall into any existing culinary camp. Massimiliano Alajmo’s food is not modernist or nouvelle or regional or international or post-modernist-deconstructed-minimalist, but rather something quite personal and unique. His approach is almost poetic. “Inspiration and ideas for new dishes come from everything,” he says, “from the taste of water, from different feelings or memories, from experiences, from the ingredients themselves….” The publication of the Alajmo cookbook In.gredienti in 2006 was, he says, “the moment in which my food philosophy emerged in complete clarity. Every ingredient in a recipe must contribute to the memory of the path it has taken to create harmony and fluidity.”

While food is obviously central to the success of Le Calandre, Massimiliano is quick to share the credit with his family. “The partnership between my brother and me is fundamental. We are two sides of the same coin; our mutual support of one another is total.” Of his parents he says, “They believed in us 100 percent, and they still do.”

His mother, on the other hand, who continues to be active in the pastry shop, radiates a fascination for her son. “Massimiliano is in continuous evolution; he’s a volcano, always spewing out something new, always changing, always moving forward. I never fail to learn something new from him.”

“In the past,” Erminio jokes proudly, “my children were afraid of being known merely as the sons of Erminio. Now I’m known as the father of Max and Raf!”

Last year, the brothers renovated Le Calandre’s dining room with the intention of creating an even closer rapport and unbroken flow between it and the kitchen. While the kitchen is not an open one, its presence is palpable and the door is always open, both literally and figuratively. More importantly, the dining room seeks to exemplify the same qualities of the food: it is simple and clean, with great attention to detail, but not cold or stuffy. Just as the food is based on expressing and exploring the ingredients, here every component, from the glasses to the cutlery and light fixtures, has been expressly designed with the same attention to style and detail. “These things,” says Raffaele, pointing to the glasses, cutlery, and plates on the table, “are ingredients too, and they play a big part in the dining experience.” Each of the tables, the “stage” on which the meal unfolds, was sculpted from a single tree by Alberto Granelli. There is a well in the center to hold bread, but no tablecloths. While this is certainly unusual for a Michelin three-star, the exposed surface spotlights both the exceptional workmanship and the quality of the fine-grained wood itself, the softness and smoothness of which not even the finest cotton cloth could rival.

Speaking of the blurred line between ingredients and accessories, and the centrality of both to his culinary approach, Massimiliano has collaborated with master perfumer Lorenzo Dante Ferro to create a line of aromatic sprays based on natural ingredients that can be used to enhance food, the surrounding air, or even on the body as a sort of savory perfume. Massimiliano has forged associations with a number of other artisan food producers and craftspeople, whose products are available in the store and in the restaurant.

The ever-expanding Alajmo empire took a big step forward last year when Raffaele got the family together and made a proposal. “I asked them to let me take control of the family business and steer our future growth and development. They all agreed.” The business structure was changed from a SRL (like an LLC) to an S.p.A. (similar to an Inc.), permitting a major influx of capital and enabling them to undertake a major new project in Venice. In June, the Alajmos took over an historic restaurant cafe and restaurant right on Piazza San Marco called Quadri (originally known as Il Remedio), which has been a fixture of Venetian life and society for hundreds of years. “Renovation was hell,” says Erminio, who supervised the work. “Working in Venice has special difficulties, and renovating a place like Quadri carries a big responsibility. Everything was done under the watchful eyes of the authorities; it cost twice as much as it ordinarily would have and took twice as long.”

I recently had lunch with Raffaele in the just-opened restaurant above the cafe looking out over the piazza. When we sat down, he wrote our order by hand on a small notepad and handed it to the waiter, joking with him just like his father did with the waitress when I visited La Montecchia. “From your seat,” Raffaele says, “if you lean over just a bit, you can see the water.” While the interior is definitely Old World—dark wood paneling, big Murano glass chandeliers, red damask walls, and velvet chair cushions—the food exists in the present. “We did an entirely new menu specifically for this place,” Raffaele notes, sipping a Martini, “which exemplifies both Massimiliano’s approach to food and the city of Venice.” As if on cue, a dish called cappuccino of the lagoon arrives, a delicate potato and fishbroth velouté over red mullet fillet and clams drizzled with cuttlefish ink and saffron oil and the faint aroma of star anise.

Besides the regular menu, the restaurant is also currently featuring a special 12 course “performance” menu for Venice’s Biennale, the city’s major art festival. Called Lucefluida, the menu, according to Massimiliano, seeks to “transfer the concept of light into food through irony and, in so doing, to recount my perceptions of the fluid energy that is created and the necessity we all have to live it.” One dish, called Emersion (which follows a dish called Immersion), consists of sweet raw langoustines, caviar, curly endive, balls of chopped raw beef, and tiny cubes of mango. The idea here, as stated in the menu, is to stimulate “introspection in the reading of a dish in which we are led to listen inside ourselves and grasp our own nature. In the emergence, the pulps mix together until they generate a coexistence based on similarity and contrast.” Indeed, the ingredients seemed to sparkle translucently while the delicate flavors and mostly soft textures blended together into an appealing if quite subtle whole. Along with the dish, the waiter brought ear plugs, as if to combat the pressure change of emerging from the deep, and a little mirror so we could watch. While the Lucefluida menu at Quadri is based on seafood, a similar one at Le Calandre is based on ingredients from terra firma. Both menus, like the Biennale, run through November.

As the courses flow in fluid succession, Raffaele keeps tabs on the other tables, notices when my tape recorder battery is running low, jokes with the floor staff, and talks with me. As each dish arrives, he looks at it for a second, then devours it in a bite or two.

“Massimiliano and I are like yin and yang,” he says at one point, “totally different but totally complementary.” Does he ever get jealous of his brother getting all the attention and credit for their success? “Not at all,” he replies without missing a beat, “Massimiliano has a gift; he sees things differently than other people do. Someone has to be the star player, the one to make the goal, no? But he can’t do it without good defense, without a team behind him. If I were the forward, I wouldn’t be able to make the goal—that’s not my job or my skill—but I can do everything possible to enable him to do it. That way we all win. That’s the essence of a good team, and the key to success.”

Another key to success, Raffaele says, is knowing exactly what you want. What does he want? “To be the best restaurant in Italy,” he answers, then corrects himself: “To be the best we can possibly be. Why settle for less?” Did he always have this objective? “Yes, at least since Massimiliano and I took over Le Calandre, but how to get there became much clearer for me after our cookbook was published.”

After lunch, we go upstairs for coffee and watch a short film they produced called EachCook—Il Delitto Imperfetto, a kitchen “thriller” humorously based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Dial M for Murder. Then Raffaele takes me around to see the work still in progress. They are currently renovating the ground floor kitchen that will serve the cafe, both the beautiful indoor room with antique murals where Casanova used to take hot chocolate and the one out on the piazza. Because there is an ordinance prohibiting use of silverware on the piazza, Raffaele says they will develop a unique menu of finger foods. He also shows me a secret doorway where courtesans used to be admitted to the upper rooms in days gone by. “I love Venice,” he proclaims. “Last night after I finished work at around 2:30 in the morning, I sat out on the piazza and smoked a cigar. It was totally quiet—magical, just as it must have been 500 years ago.”

As I gather my things I pose one last question: What’s next? He pauses, shrugs, and begins to laugh: “Well, first we have to get this place going. And pay our investors.”